Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that Russia and China are fierce competitors in the global political arena. The two nations have competed for energy resources and bi-lateral trade, on top of instigating a new post-Cold War 'space race'.
However, it does now seem that the tide is changing. The Sino-Russian rivalry is easing as Moscow and Beijing consider cooperation in Central Asia. These two global superpowers seek to thaw their frosty relationship by combining their biggest economic projects in the region: China's new Silk Road Economic Belt, and Russia's Eurasian Economic Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping met at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation earlier this year and discussed the possibility of a framework to combine both projects. President Putin said after the meeting, "The integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road projects means reaching a new level of partnership and actually implies a common economic space on the continent".
The agreement would merge the Eurasian Union, an economic trade-bloc consisting of former-Soviet republics, with China's Silk Road project, a logistics and transport venture aimed at developing Central Asian infrastructure to withhold Chinese investment.
Reinvigorating the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
If this merger between the two projects is to go ahead, under the watchful eye of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it would potentially rebrand the aforementioned organisation into one of the finest and most powerful economic institutions the Eastern world.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has previously been considered somewhat ineffective. Having failed to play a defining role in various aspects of security, development and economic cooperation, the organisation’s sole achievement has been the settling of border disputes between member states. Yet, such a pivotal supervisory role, helping to foster a strong Sino-Russian partnership, could re-establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an influential force in the international community.
Though the deal may sound great, a pertinent question still lingers: what has brought about this partnership between two great former rivals? Well, considering recent events, the answer is rather simple:
1. Russia cannot compete with Chinese Investment
Officials in Beijing expressed concern that the Eurasian Union was designed to minimise China’s burgeoning role in Central Asia. Their concern was not unfounded. Russia has been unable to match China's economic influence and investment in Central Asia in recent years. China's intent to invest was made clear when, in 2013, it sealed a $30bn investment package with Kazakhstan, a $15bn deal with Uzbekistan, and a $3bn financial aid deal with Kyrgyzstan. On this basis, it is plausible to suggest that the Eurasian Union was created as a geopolitical obstruction to Chinese influence.
However, Russia has since seen the benefits of mutual action in Central Asia. Despite Putin’s attempts to undermine China’s influence, he recognises that this cannot be more than a short-term strategy. Under the wider implications of the new framework between both countries, China has been handed the opportunity to invest in Russian industry and acquire stakes in various sectors such as oil and gas, defence, technology, and finance.
Instead of competing with an emerging superpower, Russia is redefining its role in Central Asia; acknowledging its diminishing authority in the region.
2. Russia's isolation by the International Community over Ukraine
President Putin's Ukrainian escapade has not been well received by the international community. Russia has been isolated from the West and hit with economic sanctions - causing the nation’s economy to weaken and oil prices to fall.
Given this deteriorating economic relationship with the West, Putin has looked eastwards. Since announcing a $400 billion gas deal with China in 2014, the Kremlin has endeavoured to evolve its economic partnership with China. To act as an antidote to Western sanctions, Russia has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, led by China. It has also initiated negotiations regarding the creation of a new development bank - with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation being used as a platform for discussions.
Can Russia maintain a healthy relationship with Eurasian Union members?
A more pressing matter is whether Russia can maintain a healthy relationship with the other members of the Eurasian Union. Any significant conflict of interests between member states or use of hard-power by Russia could jeopardise the security of any newfound friendship with China.
Given the enormity of Russia's geopolitical, military and mighty economic power, it is inevitable that the Eurasian Union will eventually become Russian-led. In the Union's inaugural speech, President Putin repeatedly referred to the importance of Russia's position in the post-Soviet space, saying that it was of "vital interests and a matter of national security".
History evidences how regional organisations involving Russia have in the end become dominated by singular geopolitical and geo-economic interests. For example, the somewhat disastrous Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as a loose association of former Soviet Republic states. It eventually catalysed Russia to pursue its dominant geopolitical aspirations. This was demonstrated by various Russian-led conflicts/invasions, including the Russian-Georgian conflict (2008), and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and subsequent annexation of Crimea region (2014).
It is in this sense that the Eurasian Economic Union - an integrated economic alliance between former Soviet Republics - could simply be considered a reincarnation of the CIS and an opportunity for Russia to reconstruct its geopolitical-military dominance. As stated by Hillary Clinton, it could simply be "a move to re-Sovietize the region”.
Central Asia represents a region of vital importance to both Russia and China. It does appear that Russia's ‘Look East’ policy and China's ‘Go West’ approach have indeed created a historic opportunity to combine the two countries' strategies for development. Not only could this cooperative venture stimulate transformative change in Central Asia, it could transfigure relations in the whole of the Asia-Pacific region.
As for Moscow's intentions, partnering with Beijing and building bridges is entirely in Russia's short term and long term interests, given deteriorating relations with the international community and inability to compete with Chinese investment. To sum up the rationale behind this partnership, both Russia and China are practicing the famous maxim, "If you can't beat them, join them".